Here’s your friendly reminder to schedule that annual eye exam, even if your vision is fine.
Not surprisingly, an annual eye exam is helpful for detecting and treating a range of age-related vision problems. But that’s not all your eye doctor might see.
“Eye exams can help diagnose many medical conditions,” says Peter Nixon, M.D., a retina specialist with Austin Retina Associates in Texas. “That’s because your physician will look at the small blood vessels and retina in the back of your eyes. The health of the eye gives a good snapshot of what’s happening throughout your whole body.”
In other words, your eyes may provide a warning sign that something serious could be at play elsewhere. Fortunately, your eye doctor may be able to spot these four common conditions in their early stages.
Condition #1: Diabetes
Sometimes, even before there’s a formal diagnosis of diabetes, the condition can sometimes be visualized in the eyes. When blood sugar levels are too high for too long, the tiny blood vessels in the retina can become damaged.
During the dilated eyedrop portion of your eye exam — when your pupils are enlarged, allowing the doctor to better see the back of your eye — they get a good look at the health of your blood vessels and retina. It’s here where they may notice early signs of damage, such as small leaks or swelling.
Your eye doctor can recommend that you get tested for diabetes. Uncontrolled symptoms of diabetes can lead to a condition known as diabetic retinopathy, which sometimes causes vision loss. Symptoms include:
- Blurry vision
- Vision that goes back and forth between blurry and clear
- Poor night vision
- Colors appearing washed out or faded
- Floaters, or spots in your vision that may look like black or gray specks or strings that drift across the eyes
Condition #2: High Blood Pressure
You don’t always need a blood pressure cuff to find out that you have hypertension (also known as high blood pressure). Although the blood vessels in the eye are tiny, they can still signal a pressure issue if particular changes are noted in the small arteries and veins.
That’s important, because high blood pressure can contribute to the development of several serious eye issues, including glaucoma and macular degeneration — both of which are leading causes of vision loss.
Increased blood pressure can cause blood vessels to bend or kink. Your eye doctor will spot these blood vessel abnormalities during the dilated portion of your eye exam.
As with diabetes, the longer high blood pressure goes undetected, the higher the potential toll on your vision. Eventually, you may experience distorted or blurry vision, but often there’s no indication at all. In other words, if you’re not getting regular eye exams, this problem might go undetected until more serious damage occurs.
Condition #3: High Cholesterol
Your body needs cholesterol to perform important functions, such as building new cells and insulating nerve cells in the brain. But as with many things in life, you can have too much of a good thing. And having high cholesterol increases your risk for cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke.
When there’s too much cholesterol in your blood, it can get stuck on the inside of arteries, forming a thick deposit that narrows them. This condition is known as atherosclerosis.
Sometimes, an eye doctor may detect a problem even before they peer into your eyes, says Howard R. Krauss, M.D. He’s a neuro-ophthalmologist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California. “For some people with high cholesterol, you’ll see yellow fatty deposits forming in the eyelid,” he says. “But an eye exam can allow us to see how much of a problem it is.”
High cholesterol will often cause a blue or yellow ring around the cornea, or there may be fatty deposits seen in the blood vessels of the retina.
Condition #4: Inflammation and Autoimmune Diseases
Chronic inflammation is another sneaky health foe. Many people are unaware that problems are brewing because there are few outward symptoms. But your eye doctor has a unique view of the inside of your body — by dilating your pupils they can see the inflammation.
That’s important, because numerous conditions, especially autoimmune diseases, are linked to chronic inflammation. They include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Myasthenia gravis
- Sjögren’s syndrome
These serious health issues affect multiple organs or areas in the body, but they all affect the eyes as well. For example, lupus can cause swelling in the eyes, leading to light sensitivity and dry eye. With multiple sclerosis, inflammation in the optic nerve can cause painful eye movement or double vision. Other indications of deeper problems might be:
- Drooping eyelids
- A burning or stinging sensation in your eyes
- Vision loss
- Feeling like there’s something in your eye (when there’s not)
The Bottom Line
All of these conditions may also come with no symptoms at all in their early stages, Dr. Krauss says. But subtle changes in your eyes detected during an exam may reveal what could be important signs of general health conditions.
That’s why it’s vital to stick to an annual eye exam schedule beginning in your 60s, even if your eyes aren’t bothering you. (When you were younger, it was okay to see the eye doctor every two years.)
“There are many things that can begin to go wrong, and one may not realize there’s a problem until it’s a more serious issue,” Dr. Krauss says. “A routine exam serves as an alert system. For any medical issue, early detection is key for the best treatment outcomes.”
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